24 May 2004

Thoughts about 'C-fibers firing'

I get irritated when philosophers talk about C-fibers firing as the neural substrate of pain experience, but not because of the factual wrongness of the claim --C-fibers and A(delta) fibers are nociceptive afferent axons which (I believe) are not even present in the brain. Clearly, they are using 'C-fibers' as shorthand for 'whatever neural mechanism science discovers about pain-processing in the brain' (Kripke explictly makes this qualification in Naming and Necessity). I have no objection to such shorthand; in fact, I like it when philosophers remember their place vis-a-vis scientists.

Instead, I worry that this shorthand connotes too simple of a picture of what pains are --both in terms of experience and underlying psychology/neurology. I worry that 'C-fibers firing' suggests that there is one discrete part of the brain dedicated to processing pains. Such a picture, I think, can lead to many philosophical mistakes about what pains are.
Let me loosely distinguish between two uses of 'brain-state': (1) a state of the brain such that that the brain has many discrete brain-states at any given time; and (2) a state of the brain such that the whole brain is in one state at any given time.

Many writers --at least those working in ethics and axiology-- seem to assume that pains are essentially phenomenological (where 'phenomenology' refers to the hurting of the pain) and only accidentally associated with emotions, affect, expectation, etc. I therefore worry that when such writers say 'of course, the phenomenology supervenes on/ is identical with some brain-state' they are too close to (1) in what they are imagining pains are. They assume that there is some discrete neural phenomenon corresponding to the discrete phenomenological phenomenon --the pain.

I, of course, think this picture of what pains are is a mistake. I think that pains are best understood as having certain emotional, desiderative, conative, and affective components essentially. Hence I worry that the shorthand 'C-fibers' in discussing brain-states takes us too close to (1) rather than the more distributed and complex picture of pains of (2) (of course, we don't want to be too close to (2) either).

Now, I believe --and hopefully will be in print soon arguing-- that this mistaken picture of what pains are has great importance for how we understand and answer the axiological and normative questions about pain. Indeed, I suspect this mistake of shorthand that I'm suggesting affects the moral philosopher's view of pain, may also matter to other issues in philosophy of mind and metaphysics where pain is a central example.
(see, for example, Nancy Hardcastle's book The Myth of Pain and her When a Pain is Not J Phil 1997 94 381-409. I'm being intentionally vague here as to whether she commits these mistakes or whether her arguments are especially attuned to them; I haven't thought enough about her work to decide what exactly is going on in it)

1 comment:

adam keck said...

I think that I am missing something about what you mean when you use the term 'philosopher.' What I want from philosophy is giant and maybe insane thoughts about the universe, about current society and its politics, and about the inner life of the individual within that society. So far as I know, no one expects science to address those kind of questions, least of all scientists. If there is such a philosopher who has been cowed into submission by not being as useful at manipulating matter as the scientist, than that philosopher has forgotten their purpose.